Sunday 26 October 2014

The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin

As regular followers of this blog (yes, both of you!) will know, I have a soft spot for books which feature alternative histories and particularly a magical version of London. I can't recall what caused me to buy The Witches of Chiswick, probably I thought this was a member of this sub-sub-genre but, in fact, it is rather different – very different.

The complicated plot starts in the 23rd century, a grossly overcrowded and dystopian London in which the hero, one Will Starling, a young man obsessed with the Victorian age, is at work in a museum cataloguing paintings of that era when he discovers a jarring little detail in a portrait – the subject is wearing a digital watch. The authorities seem very keen to destroy the painting but Will hides it, only to discover that he is being hunted as a result. After a chain of improbable circumstances Will finds himself transported by a time machine back to the Victorian era – but one which is very different from that portrayed in the history books, with a far higher level of technology.

I can't say much more without spoilers, but Will's adventures in this strange version of Victorian London are often hilarious (the author has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and the book is full of jokes), sometimes grim as he eventually comes up against the deadly Witches of Chiswick who are behind all of the changes.

This is a decidedly zany story with a writing style to match (the author sometimes addresses the reader directly via footnotes – including an apology for a really bad joke) and at first I thought I wasn't going to like it, but I found it increasingly difficult to put down. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste but it's worth trying for a decidedly different reading experience.

Sadly, I could not say the same of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, which is Book 1 of the Clockwork Century series of four novels (to date). This "steampunk" alternative history story was highly praised when it emerged in 2009, winning the Locus Award for best SF novel. I've quite enjoyed most steampunk stories I've read so far, usually finding them light and amusing entertainment but, like The Witches of Chiswick, this one was not what I expected. It is set in a rather different late-nineteenth century Seattle which had suffered a disaster some years previously when an automated tunnelling machine had run wild, collapsing the foundations of the central buldings and releasing a deadly gas which was contained only by constructing enormous walls around the centre of the city. The main characters are the widow and teenage son of the inventor of the machine who live grim and unhappy lives, still suffering the consequences of the inventor's act. The son decides to try to clear his father's name so determines to enter the closed city centre, looking for evidence.

That's as far as I got, somewhere past page 70. This is a very well-written book and I can understand the praise it received, but I just found it too slow and depressing. I became more and more reluctant to pick it up and continue reading, so decided to cut my losses and read something else instead.


Fred said...

I did manage to finish Boneshaker (a selection of an SF book group I belong to), but that was about it. I guess you didn't get to the zombies which is a turnoff for me. I will look around for the Witches of C, as it seems to be interesting.

Anthony G Williams said...

You are right, Fred, I missed the zombies....

Fred said...

You didn't miss much.